Publisher: Walker Books | Publication date: 2nd October 2014 | Edition: Hardback (Paperback now out 1st January 2015)
Such an innocent title, and yet this powerful story of courage and friendship knocked the wind right out of me.
This book may fall under the category of ‘children’s fiction’, but anyone of any age could fully appreciate this beautifully written, desperate struggle for survival during German occupation and a heart-warming bond that holds an unlikely band of refugees together.
Firstly we meet dear old Max, who is the custodian of the animals on the Askaniya-Nova Reserve in the Ukraine. There are all manner of species on the reserve, including a small herd of rare Przewalski horses, who are just one of the shining lights in this book. This elusive breed of horse seems to radiate an almost mystical quality and their interesting ancient history is wonderfully dappled throughout the book.
When word reaches the reserve that a German patrol is heading their way, Max refuses to leave and vows to do all he can to protect the animals in his care.
As the German Captain, named Grenzmann, arrives and makes his all too familiar mission clear: that they wish only to preserve the life of the more ‘pure bred’ species, rather than the native Przewalski’s. He has orders to destroy every last one of their kind and seems to look at this as a personal achievement. Max’s humility under this forced circumstance is just heart-breaking.
But two horses have miraculously evaded the massacre and have acquired a kindred spirit, as hiding amongst them in the forest is Kalinka, an orphaned Ukrainian girl whose entire family had been executed in Dnepropetrovsk.
Despite Kalinka’s tragic past she is undeterred – she MUST keep them safe. With the help of these special little horses with their cunning and intelligence, hope reveals itself in the most unexpected ways.
The events that unfold are written with startling emotion. Each character, be it human or equine, is perfectly drawn and contributes to tell this inspirational story. The relationship and conversations Kalinka holds with her only friends is so touching, as are the sacrifices made along the way.
“There was nowhere to hide-not a tree nor a bit of shrubbery nor a dip behind a hill that might have concealed them from anyone in pursuit…the [their] tracks were like some evil serpent that continually threated to betray them.”
Even if you’re not a great lover of horses (like me) I would still highly recommend it. It’s so much more than the title suggests.
(My gratitude goes to the publisher and the Scottish Book Trust for kindly picking my name from the hat in a competition they ran on their website. It seems only fair to provide a review in return.)
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